Planet watching

Google Earth is the new killer app for environmentalists

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as seen from Google Earth.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as seen from Google Earth.

Imagine yourself in outer space, gazing at the blue and green sphere that is our home. Now zoom in, fast, diving toward continents and oceans. Soon rivers and cities emerge, then individual houses and then cars. Zoom closer: There’s a camel in the desert, and you can even zoom right to its eyelashes.

This is Google Earth, the flagship of the latest generation of desktop tools (NASA’s World Wind is another great tool) that is putting sophisticated and comprehensive models of the planet in the hands of anybody with a computer. When it launched in June 2005, the free Google Earth application immediately became an online sensation, with geo-enthusiasts everywhere using the program to tour the world virtually and then posting images and movies on the Web.

Google Earth allows users to select a geographical area and zoom in to view recognizable terrain and buildings. Environmentalists have begun using the technology to address clear-cutting, toxic spills and zoning issues.

But for environmentalists, Google Earth has turned out to be much more than another gee-whiz software development. Instead, it’s starting to look like a killer app that could change the power balance between grassroots environmentalists and their adversaries.

“Google Earth enabled us to give people a chance to visit the Arctic from their desks,” said Eric Antebi, national press secretary for the Sierra Club. As part of the struggle to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge free of oil wells, the Sierra Club set up a Google Earth annotation so users could explore the region. “People could fly around Northern Alaska and see this landscape; they could get out there and see why this place is worth protecting.”

Because Google Earth drapes satellite imagery over 3-D topographic data, the program creates the illusion of flying through a landscape. As the “pilot,” a user develops an intimate understanding of how a place is laid out. Users also can create annotations consisting of markers, labels and other information laid over Google’s geo-data that they then can share with others.

“One of the slides we presented shows the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Antebi. “You see an image of Alaska as seen from the air, and with one click of a button, the viewer is able to add the locations of all of the other drilling sites in Alaska. It really drives home that most of Alaska is already open to oil and gas development, and there’s this one place that we’ve managed to protect thus far.”

This kind of visual perspective on environmental problems transforms vague policy debates into concrete problems. “Smokestacks don’t look very impressive when you see them from straight on,” said Mathew Spolin, creator of Sprol (, an online magazine that posts information and images culled from explorations on Google Earth to expose environmental catastrophes. “But you can follow the smoke coming out of smokestacks for thousands of miles in Google Earth.”

Spolin, chief technical officer at a California software company, said he started Sprol because the sites that cropped up when Google Earth came out last year “kept posting pictures of Disney World and the St. Louis arch,” while he was more interested in the places that are radioactive or poisonous. The site’s tagline is “Worst Places in the World.”

Contributors to Sprol, a labor of love that Spolin manages in his spare time, use Google Earth to explore worldwide environmental issues as varied as soybean farming in Argentina, coalmining in the desert, landownership patterns in the Deep South and the problems of nuclear-weapons storage.

In each case, the visual evidence is stunning. Simply take a look. Seeing these phenomena creates an understanding of the problem that no amount of words can convey. That’s precisely why satellite imagery has always been so valuable, starting with Cold War-era spy programs. But the vast amount of imagery now available to everyone dwarfs those early programs.

“It’s incredible,” said Spolin, who worked for a commercial satellite company in Bethesda, Md., while he was still in high school in the late 1980s. (“I started consulting when I was 12. I was one of those kids,” he said.) “If you wanted to get data like this before,” continued Spolin, “you were just out of luck. Even with the expensive, high-end machines, you couldn’t just bring up a map and look at it. We had a photography lab downstairs and giant drum film scanners. And now anybody can do it. It’s mind-blowing.”

The environmental importance of this tool has not been lost on Google. “The power of Google Earth is that it’s not a map. It’s actually a real model of the real Earth,” said Rebecca Moore, a software developer who works on Google Earth. “Suddenly, ordinary grassroots environmentalists have a tool that up until now only government agencies or commercial interests had. It’s leveling the playing field.”

As both an environmentalist and a programmer for Google, Moore is, more than anyone else, pushing forward practical environmental applications with Google Earth. Indeed, it was her environmental work that led her to join the effort at Google.

Several years ago, Moore was working as a programmer in telecoms and living in the Santa Cruz Mountains when local land-use issues spurred her to get into digital mapping. First using off-the-shelf consumer software, and then professional geographic information systems (GIS), Moore took the initiative to create a digital map that could be used by the local counties, first responders, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and others.

“They got really excited,” she said, but she remained frustrated by the expense and awkwardness of the professional software. Then, in 2004, she stumbled onto Keyhole, the desktop application that was to become Google Earth. “I knew that was the real solution,” said Moore. When Google bought Keyhole later that year, Moore went to work for Google—her hands-on ideas for practical applications were just what the company needed.

Shortly after Google Earth was released, Moore had a chance to put it to the test. A company wanted to log in the Santa Cruz Mountains, expecting little interference from the community. “They sent out a one-page map that was just a grainy sketch,” said Moore. “It did not convey what was at stake—it was difficult to decipher, and people didn’t understand it.”

“So, I put together a model in Google Earth. I drew the region and filled in the watershed—the source of drinking water for over a million people in Silicon Valley. I mapped the whole thing, annotating the whole canyon.”

At a public presentation of more than 300 residents, Moore “flew” in from outer space to the Santa Cruz Mountains and then turned on the swath of red that represented the proposed logging. “There was a gasp from the audience,” she recalled. “It electrified the room.”

This sophisticated presentation—including a low-elevation flyover constructed from Google Earth’s imagery that showed individual trees that were going to be cut and dozens of layers of information—took Moore only a couple of days to put together. And it got results: The logging plan was withdrawn. But it’s perhaps even more impressive that people without Moore’s programming skills can use these same tools to get dramatic results of their own.

John Stephens is one of them. A retired plumber, Stephens is dedicated to the preservation of the remaining forestlands and watersheds in Napa County. “We’re alarmed over the loss of native habitat and forest for farming,” he said.

So, when a local landowner applied for a permit last year to withdraw water from a Napa creek, Stephens went to the State Water Resources Control Board. “We were concerned about insufficient flows of the creek,” he said.

The meeting took place just a week after the release of Google Earth. Stephens downloaded the program as soon as he heard about it, and he immediately saw how useful it could be. He printed out a series of screen shots of the watershed and taped them together. “It was about 3 or 4 feet long,” he said. “We rolled it out on the table very dramatically.”

Because of the map, Stephens was able to ask detailed questions of the hydrologist the landowner had hired. “I asked exactly where the location of the withdrawal was going to take place,” said Stephens. “He pointed to a location, and I said, ‘Oh, right above that is about 300 feet of bare stream bank. Somebody must have cleared that area. Are you willing to re-establish vegetative cover there?’

“Well, everybody’s sitting around that room,” continued Stephens. “Fish and Game is there. The water board is there. We’re there. And the owner says, ‘Well, yeah, I could re-vegetate the area.’”

Stephens said that because the visuals make the abstract obvious, the result was positive for everyone. The stream was re-vegetated, the landowner got the water he needed, and the whole thing happened quickly, without the litigation and endless hearings that are so common in land-use disputes.

“Google Earth is great because you can get a feeling of the valleys and the slope of the hills,” said Stephens. “You can go up a creek bed like you’re flying. It’s very dramatic. People cannot hide anymore.”

With results like these less than a year after its release, Google Earth is well on its way to revolutionizing the way people talk about the environment. “I think that this has the potential not only to raise people’s environmental consciousness, but to raise their consciousness of humanity,” concluded Moore. “I see it as making the world a smaller place in a good way, giving everyone a greater intimacy with the Earth and the rest of the people and the plants and animals that share it with us.”

Gregory Dicum is the author of Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air.